Rock opera 'Rent' delivers riveting performance

To paraphrase the most familiar song from "Rent," there are 525,600 reasons to love the show at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

The in-the-round configuration is an ideal setting for the production, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama and four Tony Awards, including best musical and best score. The crowd-pleasing rock musical ran for 12 years on Broadway, and Toby's staging catches the vitality, excitement and seediness of the show's New York East Village locale.

"Rent" succeeds on several levels in its exuberant appeal to the young while lending insight to older viewers who might admire the freedom of contemporary bohemian life. Admirers of Puccini's "La Boheme" will find several artistic parallels, especially among characters Roger and Mimi. Their love mirrors that of Mimi and Rodolfo, though composer Jonathan Larson's music never soars as Puccini's does, but instead conveys with edgy rock Roger's reluctance to leap into a committed relationship. Inextricably blended with jealous wariness are the lovers' desperate struggles with HIV and drug dependence — problems more relevant today than the consumption afflicting Puccini's Mimi.

The rock opera has a diverse score interlaced with gospel and contemporary ballads.

Adding more poignancy to this work is the story of Larson, the composer-librettist creator of "Rent," who died at age 35 of an aneurysm on the night of the show's final dress rehearsal after working for seven years on his musical portraying the lives of his neighbors battling poverty and AIDS.

Theater owner Toby Orenstein serves as both director and artistic director, and displays skill at assembling an ensemble of first-rate actors and singers able to execute difficult choreography. Orenstein elevates several seasoned performers to more demanding roles where they attain new dramatic heights.

Contributing to the overall excellence of this production is co-director Kevin McAllister, who also delivers a riveting performance as former MIT professor and computer wiz Tom Collins by combining heartfelt emotion and magnificent singing in celebration of love.

Musical director Christopher Youstra leads his musicians in a pulsating rock concert that consistently supports singers in chorus and solo.

Choreographer Kurt Boehm has created vibrant, fresh choreography that is well-executed by skilled dancers. David Hopkins' vivid two-level set design becomes an authentically harsh East Village bohemian playground where costume designer Janine Sunday enhances every actor's hip, funky or sexy image.

Singer and actor Greg Twomey makes a spectacular Toby's debut in the leading role of Roger, conveying a conflicted, idealistic would-be musician who resists his initial attraction to Mimi, which soon becomes an obsession filled with jealousy and rage. Twomey's powerful nuanced baritone profoundly expresses each change in emotion.

Recently seen in Toby's "Nunsense" and "Hairspray," MaryLee Adams returns to define the role of irresistible, impetuous, earthy, HIV-positive Mimi, who soon after knocking on Roger's door signals her consuming love for the man she handles no better than her drug addiction. Adams' Mimi joins Twomey's Roger in some memorable duets that express their reluctant passion.

As seductive Maureen, the former lover of narrator Mark and current love of Joanne, Mary Searcy provides some show-stopping moments, first in "Over the Moon" and later in the tango "Take Me or Leave Me" with Harvard-educated crusader Joanne, memorably played by Heather Beck.

A spectacular performance is given by Bryan Daniels as cross-dressing Angel, who inspires his fellow outcast neighbors to celebrate life and love. Wearing a fur-fringed Santa jacket with zebra tights, Daniels' Angel dances joyously on a tabletop to beguile Tom Collins along with most of the audience, and in Act 2 returns, consumed by AIDS, in a heartbreaking farewell scene with lover Collins.

Noteworthy performances are given by Nick Lehan as the show's narrator, filmmaker and Roger's roommate, Mark; and by David Gregory as Mark's former friend and now building owner, Benny, who wants to evict the tenants and transform the space into an MTV studio.

"Rent" continues with matinee and evening performances all complete with buffets at Toby's through Nov. 14. For reservations and information, call 410-995-1969.

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